On an El Al plane waiting to take off from Ben-Gurion Airport where I was seated next to a man, I was approached by a haredi fellow who wanted me to give him my seat in exchange for his, which was next to a woman. “I can’t sit next to a woman,” he said to me. “It is forbidden.”

“If it is forbidden,” I asked him, “why do you think it is all right for me to sit next to a woman? Isn’t it equally forbidden to me and therefore aren’t you asking me to commit a sin?” Puzzled, he went elsewhere to find the answer to his problem.

I’m certain that this incident on El Al was not unique. Takeoffs on El Al are frequently delayed while this scramble for kosher seats takes place. Of course, this is indicative of a much larger problem that now affects our society and public life: the extreme position taken regarding the separation of men and women, which is even more extreme than anything known before in Jewish life. It certainly does not reflect normative practice dictated by Jewish law. Like the demand for glatt kosher everything, even water, it goes far beyond the law.

Oddly enough, at the same time that extremist elements in the haredi community are striving for a complete separation between men and women in transportation, shopping centers and even the public streets, the exact opposite is happening in other Orthodox circles, where more and more is being done to encourage greater participation of women in synagogue life and other aspects of Judaism.

The last few decades have witnessed a true revolution in the part women play in Judaism. This may be the direct result of greater educational opportunities for girls.

Religious high schools no longer take it for granted that girls will not study Talmud, for example. The result has been the flourishing of a population of observant women well educated in Jewish sources and no longer willing to take a back seat in Jewish life. In addition, the struggle for the rights of agunot, women who cannot obtain a divorce because of recalcitrant husbands, has produced a new sense of militancy among religious women.

Admittedly, this has not gone as far in Orthodox circles as in the Masorti Movement or the Reform Movement, where women have long had the opportunity to participate fully in services and to become rabbis. Nevertheless, even rabbinical ordination for women is beginning to occur one way or another in certain Orthodox circles.

There are also congregations that label themselves Orthodox in which an attempt is made to include women as much as possible in the conducting of the service. The mehitza may still be there, but it is less blatant and allows women to be as close to the center of the service as the men are and to participate in leading prayers and reading the Torah. Women’s minyanim and Megilla readings are becoming more common. Of course, there is resistance to these changes within the modern Orthodox community, but they do exist and there is every reason to believe that this trend will grow in the future.

Although the Torah and the rest of the Bible obviously represent a patriarchal society in which women were usually subordinate to men, as was the case in all societies at that time, there is nothing to indicate that they were ever totally separated from men or that they had no role to play in religious life. Obviously they did not serve as priests or Levites, although Exodus 38:8 mentions “women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting,” without telling us exactly what they did. Miriam was considered a prophetess and led the women in joyous worship, and there is nothing to indicate that the men were not present when she sang her song.

Women as well as men played in the orchestra in the House of the Lord in David’s time (I Chronicles 25:5) and sang in the Temple choir during the post-exilic period (Ezra 2:65 and Nehemiah 7:67). Like Miriam, Deborah was not only a judge – the equivalent of being prime minister – but also a prophetess. When King Josiah was told that an unknown scroll had been found in the Temple and he needed to know if it was holy, a part of the Torah of Moses or not, he inquired of a prophetess, Hulda, for verification. It was on her word that the book – probably Deuteronomy – was declared sacred.

The midrash also ascribes religious roles to women. For example, a midrash states that both Abraham and Sarah made it their business to teach about God to anyone coming their way and converted them to their new faith: Abraham converted the men, and Sarah converted the women (Genesis Raba 39:5).

There is a struggle going on today within traditional Judaism concerning the place of women. One side wishes to separate them from men and keep them not only out of public view but out of public functions. The other side wants to bring them in and make use of their talents and their potential. The outcome will be crucial not only for women but for the future of Judaism and the Jewish people.

The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger